How Italiano stopped Fiorentina’s suffering and brought joyous disbelief

<span>Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Fiorentina’s players have been waiting two months for their manager to buy them dinner. Vincenzo Italiano promised to take them out as a thank you for their win away at Inter at the start of April. He had never before tasted victory at San Siro in his 30 combined years playing and coaching in Italy.

The only problem was finding a free evening. Four days later, Fiorentina faced Cremonese in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final. The following week, they were off on a Europa Conference League trip to Poznan. Sandwiched between was another Serie A game. If you will insist on going to the final of every cup you enter, you won’t get a lot of breaks.

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“I don’t want to hear anyone say that I’m not a man of my word, or that I’m a tight-ass,” a laughing Italiano said on Thursday. “There simply has not been a free night. I promised this to the lads, and I repeated it a few days ago; the boss needs to pay his debt.”

Even the timing of this conversation told a story. Italiano was speaking at the media day for Fiorentina’s Conference League final against West Ham but sometimes found himself discussing his team’s Serie A season-ender against Sassuolo the following day. As he reminded his audience, the Hammers were off at a training camp in the Algarve.

Wednesday’s final will be the 60th game of Fiorentina’s season – a club record, and three more than their opponents have played. The exhaustion is real but so is a sense of joyous disbelief. Before Italiano’s appointment in the summer of 2021, the Viola had spent a grim season battling relegation.

As he recalls it, all anyone at the club wanted was “to stop suffering, to stop being anonymous, to be respected and to have an identity”. He delivered immediately, helping Fiorentina improve their league performance by 22 points in his first season – despite the top scorer Dusan Vlahovic being sold to Juventus in the winter.

The Viola finished seventh, then followed that with eighth this time. It hardly felt like a step backward, given the cup runs, but it is the first time in seven years of management that Italiano has failed to climb higher up the league pyramid.

After a difficult debut on the bench at Vigontina San Paolo in 2016-17, he won a Serie D playoff with Arzignano Valchiampo in 2018, got Trapani promoted from Serie C in 2019 and led Spezia up from Serie B in 2020. He steered Spezia to top-flight safety before joining Fiorentina.

The 45-year-old has built a reputation as one of Italy’s sharpest young managers and been linked with Napoli. One former director named him as “un piccolo Pep” – a little Pep Guardiola. Fiorentina play with the highest line in Serie A and have been the most prolific team in the Conference League by some distance, despite lacking a reliable No 9.

Arthur Cabral was signed as an initial replacement for Vlahovic, then Luka Jovic was added in the summer. Both have been inconsistent, even if each has done their best work in the Conference League. Cabral is the tournament’s joint-top scorer with seven goals in 13 games, a better return than his eight in 28 Serie A appearances.

Italiano will not say who is starting on Wednesday, but Fiorentina’s strength is their depth. There are goals throughout the squad and options in most positions thanks to a deliberate rotation strategy. West Ham will need to be attentive to the dribbling of Jonathan Ikoné and late runs of Giacomo Bonaventura but especially the quality of Nico González on the wing.

It was the Argentinian who drew first blood in the Coppa Italia final last month, scoring in the third minute, but Fiorentina failed to hold their advantage against an Inter side peaking at the perfect time for the Champions League final. Italiano hopes it was a learning experience. He said even beforehand that he would pick Conference League glory over the domestic cup if forced to choose.

Fiorentina have not won a trophy for 22 years, and their lone continental success was the 1961 Cup Winners’ Cup. A generation of fans who remember watching Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa yearned, as Italiano says, not for silverware but simply to remember how it felt for their team to be relevant.

Two cup finals in two and a half weeks more than meet that threshold, yet it would be agonising to come this far and lose both. “We went way beyond expectations this season,” said Italiano. “Nobody expected this, not even our supporters. You should never put limits on yourself.”

He is looking forward to buying his players dinner, but he knows they have a job to finish first.